How to design software training, part 2: Practice activities

Practice activities for new softwareAre you expected to “train” everyone on new software? In my previous post, I recommended that you first try everything but training. Make the software easier to use (yes, it’s often possible!). Create job aids and help screens.

Did that work only partially? Are you convinced that people need formal training? This post is for you.

What you’ve done so far

As described in the previous post, you’ve already:

  • Set a measurable goal that justifies the existence of the project.
  • Listed the specific, observable job tasks that people use the software to complete.
  • Identified why each task might be difficult and looked for ways to make it easier.
  • Asked for improvements to the software to make it easier to use.
  • Created easy-to-find job aids, help screens, and cheat sheets.
  • Tested those changes to see if they were enough on their own.

Now you’re convinced that people need formal training as well.

Expand your definition of “training”

Your organization might define training as, “Everyone goes to a room and is shown how to use the software” or “Everyone takes an online course that walks them through it.” They view training as a one-time event that’s delivered the same way to everyone, regardless of their pre-existing knowledge.

Let’s consider two marketing employees who are expected to learn MegaMailer, which sends promotional emails to subsets of customers.

  • Kate: In her previous job, Kate used a program called Mail-a-lot to send emails to a database of customers. MegaMailer takes a similar approach.
  • Ben: Ben has also sent out marketing emails, but he did it by copying and pasting the recipients’ addresses into the TO: field of the email. He’s never used a database of customers.

Conventional MegaMailer training would force both of them to sit through a presentation about what is a database, record, and field. But Kate already knows all that. What’s a different approach?

“Let Kate skip the stuff about databases,” some people would say. “She can start with the presentation about MegaMailer’s interface.” But what if we go a step further?

We can avoid unnecessary presentations and provide spaced practice if we try this:

  • Create self-contained activities that help people learn by doing.
  • Make these activities available on demand, on the job. Don’t lock them inside a course.

Create activities

1. Create self-contained activities, not presentations

Consider plunging people into realistic simulations or scenarios in which they complete a task similar to the task on the job.

You could give them a faithful recreation of the software, some simple screenshots to click on, or the actual software, but using fake data (a “sandbox” where people can play safely).

An example activity for Ben and Kate could be: “We’re going to send a mailing about the MegaChomper BigBoy toy to all big dog owners. First, you’ll create a list segment of all customers who own dogs that weigh more than 15 kilos.”

Ben and Kate see this activity first, not a presentation about the software. They immediately begin using the software for the same kinds of tasks they complete on the job, but with optional help.

2. Link to basic knowledge instead of forcing everyone to see a presentation.

In the “create a list segment” instructions for Ben and Kate’s activity, the words “list segment” could be linked. Kate already knows what that means, so she doesn’t click the link. Ben isn’t sure, so he clicks the link to learn the basics about lists and segments.

3. Provide how-to information as optional help instead of walking everyone through it.

People who are already familiar with the type of software will want to plunge in and try it. Others will want a lot of guidance. Make them both happy by providing optional guidance.

For example, when Kate sees that she needs to create a segment of big dog owners, she confidently jumps into the software because she’s done it before with another program and suspects it won’t be very different. Ben has a lot less experience, so he clicks “Show me how to do it” and sees a short video of the steps involved.

The amount of help could be tailored more finely. For example, Kate might like just a hint showing the first menu item to use. However, Ben might want a lot more help. In addition to the how-to video, he might like a second, more in-depth presentation that explains what a database is, how fields like “DogWeight” were created, how the information about dog weight got into that field, and so forth.

For an example of different levels of how-to help, see this activity for complex medical software, designed by Allen Interactions.

4. Start easy and build skills gradually

Choose simple tasks for the first few practice activities. In our imaginary example, creating a list segment is the first step to creating a mailing, and it’s also one of the easier steps. Maybe we’ll have Ben and Kate practice creating a few more segments before they move on to the more complicated step of using an HTML template to create the content of the email. This is a type of scaffolding.

For an example of in-activity scaffolding, see if you can learn Zeko. The story reinforces vocabulary you’ve learned so far while adding new terms.

5. Provide realistic feedback, if possible

Strong scenarios and simulations don’t stop you and say “Incorrect!” They just show you what happens as a result of your decision, and you conclude from that how well you did.

This can be tricky with software simulations, especially if the tasks are complex, with lots of ramifications. So this might be too much for your project, but for our imaginary marketing scenario, feedback might look like the following.

  • Kate is supposed to send the mailing about the MegaChomper BigBoy toy only to customers whose dogs weigh more than 15 kilos. When she creates the list segment, she incorrectly tells the software to send the email to all customers except those whose dogs weigh more than 15 kilos.
  • Instead of saying “Incorrect!” we show the natural consequence of her mistake: Owners of tiny dogs complain about annoying emails that advertise toys that their dogs can’t even pick up.

When should we show the feedback? That depends.

If Kate is just practicing list segmentation, we could show it immediately. She creates the segment, and we flash-forward to show the future result.

If she’s further on in the activities and is practicing the entire mailing process, we can withhold the feedback until the end. This is especially useful if our process includes a check step. Maybe the process looks like this:

  • Create the list segment.
  • Choose the correct HTML template.
  • Enter the content of the email in the template.
  • Double-check the list segment to make sure it’s correct.
  • Schedule the email for sending.

This gives Kate a chance to recognize and fix her earlier error, as well as having her practice the entire process.

If she doesn’t catch her error, the end result will be annoyed emails from owners of small dogs, plus an optional explanation of what she did wrong. If she does catch her error, she can fix the segment before sending the email, and she sees the happy consequence of lots of MegaChomper sales.

Make the activities available on demand, on the job

In our example, we’ve created several standalone practice activities. Each one is self-contained because it links to supporting information. It’s not an activity trapped in the middle of a presentation.

As a result, people can try the activities as they need them. Maybe all the activities are linked on an intranet page. We can (and should) show a recommended path through the activities. But people can still directly access an individual activity.

This is especially useful for reinforcement. Let’s say that Ben carefully worked through all the activities about list segments and using the HTML template. He then was put on a project that involved creating lots of HTML emails while someone else created the list segments.

Two months later, Ben needs to create a list segment but has forgotten how. He goes to the bank of activities and chooses some list-segment activities to practice again. Once he’s confident, he creates the segments he needs for his current project.

I’m not just making this up

This activity-driven approach might make intuitive sense, but intuition can’t always be trusted. Luckily, there’s also research that supports the plunge-them-into-it technique.

Again, you’ll want to provide structure, such as a recommended path through the activities, and carefully increase the difficulty with scaffolding. You want people to feel competent, not frustrated.


 

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Listen to me rant, again

Celisa Steele of the Leading Learning podcast recently interviewed me, with a focus on how associations can adapt action mapping for professional education.

This new page on my site links to several other recent interviews about action mapping and scenario design.

Can we use scenarios to teach concepts?

Here at action mapping central, we’re all about scenarios — realistic activities that help people practice what they need to do on the job.

“That’s all fine,” some people say. “But people need to be taught basic concepts before they can apply them. You can’t just throw people into an activity without first teaching them the concepts.”

I say that yes, we can throw them into an activity that requires knowledge that they don’t yet have. The trick is to make that knowledge available for them to draw on as they need it.

Here’s a basic example.

Measuring tape

Add fractions without knowing how to add fractions

Let’s consider the plight of people in the US, the land of feet and inches. When calculating building supplies, Americans often need to add fractions.

Our learners are American construction workers or similar people who often need to figure out the total length of two boards. We’re designing elearning.

A lot of designers would say, “First we need to show them a video on how to add fractions. Then we need to provide an example in which Pablo the friendly foreman adds the length of two different boards and explains step by step how he does it. Then we’ll let the learners do it with two other boards. This is tell, show, do, which everyone knows is the best way to teach.”

Let’s try it a different way. Let’s make me one of the learners. Math was not my best subject.

  • I’m plunged into an activity that requires me to figure out the total length of a 5-foot, 2 1/2″ board plus a 3-foot, 4 3/8″ board. I’m trying to determine if I can put them end-to-end to get the length required for my porch deck. I realize I have no clue how to calculate the total length.
  • I click the optional link called “How to add fractions.” I see a quick tutorial on how to do it in general. If I had remembered anything from math class, this tutorial probably would have been enough for me.
  • I apply what I learned in the tutorial to the problem, but I’m not sure I’m doing it right. The answer I got is one of the options, but something seems wrong about it.
  • I click the other link, called “See how to solve it.” This shows me the first step to solving the problem and then displays a “Next” link, giving me the option to see the next step. When I click “Next,” I see the next step, and I finally understand what I need to do. I go back to the problem and solve it. If I didn’t get it after seeing the first two steps, I could have kept clicking until I saw all the steps and the actual solution.
  • The course also offers a downloadable, printable job aid that includes a quick reminder of how to add fractions, so I can look at it on the job.

​This is a very different way of “teaching” stuff. Its advantage over “tell, show, do” is that it puts control in the learner’s hands. People who already know how to add fractions simply complete the activity and move along quickly, while people like me who don’t know the method stop, learn it, and then apply it.

​Since this is self-paced elearning, we could adapt it to the learner. If someone views the support materials before solving the first fraction-adding problem, we schedule another fraction-adding problem for them (and maybe another and another, depending on how they seem to perform). In contrast, the people who solve the first problem without help move on immediately to a different type of activity, because they’ve shown that they can already add fractions.

The advantages

Each person gauges for themselves how much they know, seeing and filling their own knowledge gaps. Everyone goes at their own pace, digging deep into the how-to material or skipping it. No one has to sit through a presentation about stuff they already know.

And, importantly, the designer shows that they respect the learners as functioning adults with life experience. For a lot more about that, see the recording of our recent webinar on motivation.

For research that supports this approach, see my post Throw them in the deep end and the FAQ Where’s the research support for scenarios?

Scenario design course: Seats still available

There are still seats available in the scenario design course that starts on Feb. 6. Learn to design scenarios by designing scenarios, with personal feedback from me. Sign up here.

Vote for topics

What do you want to hear about in this blog or future webinars? Enter your own ideas and vote on others’ here. To add an idea, click “Give feedback.”

Photo credit: lungstruck Flickr via Compfight cc; cropped

Video: 3 ways to motivate

How can we help learners feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness? Here’s a video of the webinar I recently ran on that topic, plus a summary of what we talked about.

Training design: 3 ways to motivate learners from Cathy Moore on Vimeo.

It’s all about self-determination

According to self-determination theory, when people are externally motivated, they simply obey someone else’s rules (“I do it because the boss is watching”). They might feel resentment or anxiety, and they probably perform the behavior just well enough to stay out of trouble.

Our goal as trainers is to get people to adopt the new behavior as their own and perform it willingly and well — we want them to become more internally motivated.

Research seems to support the idea that people are more likely to become internally motivated if we support their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. (For a lot more on that, see this PDF overview.)

Sample activities

To see what that might look like in activity design, we looked at a simple compliance activity and these two branching scenarios:

The activities we looked at don’t make you sit through an information presentation. You’re just plunged into each activity, as described in this blog post.

We focused on self-paced activities rather than all types of training because the activities are easiest to show on a screen during a webinar, and our time was limited. However, the concepts we discussed also apply to other formats and materials, including job aids and live training.

Autonomy

We took a quote from the paper to define autonomy as “a sense of choice, volition, and freedom from excessive external pressure toward behaving or thinking a certain way.”

When talking about practice activities, we could consider autonomy at two levels. The first, shallow level is user choice: “Now I will click this other thing in this boring click-to-reveal.” The second and more interesting is a deeper sense of freedom from feeling like someone is telling us what to think.

See the video for the lively discussion among participants about how well the sample activities supported that deeper sense of autonomy. We then summed up our recommendations as a group.

We decided we could do the following to support autonomy in self-paced activities.

  • Offer relevant scenarios with authentic choices
  • Offer optional, on-demand resources rather than assuming ignorance and forcing people to sit through presentations
  • Let people take risks
  • Show the consequence of each choice by continuing the story and letting people draw conclusions, rather than telling them, “Incorrect, blah blah blah” (see this blog post for an example)
  • Provide a clear goal for the person to achieve in the activity (beat the competition to the news story; help Hana) so they see a compelling reason to complete it

Competence

We considered three aspects of competence:

  • “I can do this!”
  • “Oops, I screwed up here, but I see how to fix it.”
  • “I’ve got the basics now. Give me something harder.”

After gauging how well the sample activities supported our need for competence, we summed up our recommendations:

  • Use scaffolding — for example, start with easier activities and then build on them
  • Show the consequence of the choice and offer constructive feedback, not the shaming red X and “Incorrect”
  • Don’t offer too-obvious options in a scenario — they insult people’s intelligence
  • Don’t obviously track people — it suggests, “We don’t trust you to learn anything”

I’d add that an intuitive interface also supports our need to feel competent, as do easy-to-use job aids and other support materials.

Relatedness

Finally, we looked at the need for relatedness. This was defined as a sense of belonging or connection with others, and feeling respected and cared for by the “teacher.”

The compliance-style activity was a little low on relatedness. However, even it managed to make us care a bit because we were trying to save a person with a name (Magda) rather than answering an abstract fact check.

The branching scenarios were rich in relatedness, and participants said they wanted to help Hana and didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of Ludo. We cared how our decisions affected people who we knew were completely fictional.

We decided that to support relatedness in our activities, we could:

  • Provide realistic characters with names
  • Create characters that aren’t perfect
  • Choose relatable situations that inspire empathy and that have emotional content
  • Have the learner collaborate with characters towards a goal
  • Choose a story that has the learner help others or be helped (or both)
  • Write realistic dialog (see some tips)

Relatable characters have names. Running out of name ideas? Try FakeNameGenerator, which creates names from all over the world (thanks, Amy, for finding that!). Another is uinames.com.

I’d also add that we can build relatedness by writing like a human being rather than a bureaucrat. You can even measure how human you sound, and contractions are your friend.

My thanks go out to all the participants, including the determined few in Australia who got up at 4 AM! Thanks for sharing your ideas, comments, and questions.

Scenario design course starts soon

If you like the discussion-rich approach I used in the webinar, you’ll like the scenario design course that starts in February. The groups are much smaller for more personal attention, and you get my private feedback on your work. Check it out!

Webinar: 3 ways to motivate learners

Let’s talk about motivation in a quick webinar on Tuesday, January 16. How can we help people feel respected, capable, and part of a community when they’re using our materials?

Three ingredients for motivation

unmotivated catOur job is to change what people do. However, we don’t want them to obey like robots — we want them to see why they should do it and happily incorporate the new behavior into their lives.

Research suggests that people are more motivated to do something if we satisfy their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. How can we support those with some simple changes to our training design?

Join our 45-minute online discussion

Let’s get together online on Tuesday, January 16, to talk about how our activity design can help or hurt people’s willingness to act. We’ll meet for free at 12 PM EST / 5 PM GMT using Zoom, which requires you to download a small app. Sign up here (seats are limited).

In 45 lively minutes, we’ll look at elements such as:

  • Feedback: Avoid “telling” and preachiness — let them feel respected and capable of drawing the right conclusion; create relatedness by sounding like a friendly peer (here’s an example)
  • Information: Let people pull the information they need, when they need it; use scaffolding to increase difficulty — support their autonomy, let them build competence at their pace
  • “Voice” in elearning — How can we make lonely, self-paced activities feel more “human” to help people feel relatedness?

Come share your questions and ideas! This will be a discussion with lots of activity in the chat.

Check out these activities

Before the webinar, try the following activities and consider how they might help or hurt people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. What works, and what doesn’t?

Consider submitting an activity or idea

Do you have some materials that could inspire discussion about motivation? Do you know about a public example that we could critique? Send them to me and maybe we’ll include them in the webinar. Obviously, you need to have permission to publicly show any materials that you send.

Maybe learn a bit about self-determination theory

The webinar is based on self-determination theory, which has been around for some time and appears to be supported by several studies. You might read this overview (PDF).

Can’t make the webinar?

Digital elves will be recording the session, and if they do their job right, I’ll post the recording on the blog. If you’re a blog subscriber, you’ll get a notification when the recording is available.

Vote for more topics

What would you like to talk about in future webinars or read about on the blog? Vote for others’ ideas or propose your own here. To add an idea, use the “Give feedback” button.

Dig deeper into activity design with the February scenario design course

The next scenario design course starts the week of Feb. 5. In four weeks of lively sessions, you’ll apply action mapping and scenario design to a project from your job and get personal feedback from me. There are online sessions for time zones in the Americas as well as Europe and South Asia. Check them out!

An Australia-friendly session of the course is tentatively scheduled for June. If you aren’t already on the alert list, sign up to be notified when the next course is open for registration.

Image credit: Unmotivated cat by katkabob

How to really involve learners

Creating an online course? I’ll bet the autopilot in your brain is saying this: “First, present the basic concepts. Next, tell them the details. Then, show them what to do. Finally, have them do it.”

Pull the plug on that autopilot and consider doing this instead.

  1. Create a challenging, realistic practice activity (not a knowledge check). The activity asks people to make the same decision that they need to make on the job. It’s probably a scenario.
  2. Identify the minimum that people need to know to complete that activity.
  3. Make that information available as an optional link in the activity. Let people pull the information when they need it.
  4. Plunge people into that activity with no presentation beforehand.
  5. Once people make their choice, consider showing the necessary information in the feedback. First show the consequence of the choice (continue the story). Then show the information that the learner should have looked at. This will satisfy the stakeholder who says, “But they all have to be exposed to the information!” Here’s a basic example.
  6. Repeat as needed.

The result is a stream of activities in which learners pull the information they need. It’s not a presentation occasionally interrupted by an activity.

Aim for a stream of activities

Use scaffolding to ease them into the challenge

With careful design, this approach works with all types of information, including basic concepts, mental models, step-by-step procedures, and detailed product specifications. The trick is to start with an easy-ish but still interesting activity and increase the challenge.

For example, if you want people practice a procedure that requires some tricky judgment calls, your optional information could include the procedure itself, tips on how to complete each step, and worked examples of the trickier steps, such as showing what a fictional person thought as they made their decisions for that step.

However, you don’t dump all this information on people at once. The information available depends on the step that the learner is completing. Your first activity could have them complete an easier step with just the procedure document and some tips, and as the activities progress, the decisions become harder and the optional help focuses on the trickier steps, with worked examples.

Make sure you say clearly and often that no one is tracking what people click. Encourage them to try all sorts of options to see what happens.

This online chapter from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book Guided Instruction gives a helpful overview of the technique, although the classroom example at the end isn’t the type of scaffolding that I’m describing.

Use the real-world job aid

If people can look at a reference on the job, have them use the same reference in your practice activities. Their learning is more likely to transfer to the job, and you save yourself the hassle of recreating the job aid.

If people need to memorize some information, ask yourself, “If they apply the information in several activities, will they end up memorizing it?” If the answer is “no,” this is probably the only argument for drills that I’ll ever make: You might link to a gamelike drill to get the information into their memory, and be sure to provide spaced practice.

Give them spaced practice

Instead of packaging all the activities as a take-it-and-forget-it course, consider delivering them spaced over time, such as one activity every few days. Research shows we learn better when we practice over time.

You can space your activities because each activity is self-contained — it links to the information needed to complete it, rather than being embedded in the middle of a presentation.

If you’ve made the activities get progressively more complex, you’ll want to maintain their sequence during the spacing. Consider ending the sequence with a live discussion to help people synthesize what they’ve learned.

Calendar showing spaced practice and discussion

Another option is to make the activities available for people to try whenever they want, probably with a recommended order of completion.

You will be a hero

Letting people pull the information they need has these happy results:

  • They’re grateful that you respect them as adults with life experience, instead of assuming they’re all equally ignorant.
  • You help them develop a motivating sense of mastery.
  • No one will have to sit through information that they don’t need. The only people who will look at the information will be the ones who need to see it.
  • Research into productive failure suggests people learn better when they struggle a bit, which is why we should jettison the genies and let people think for themselves.

You’ll find several more reasons in this post.

“Turn this information into a course” is not your job

Finally, you’re designing activities because you analyzed the performance problem and saw that practice will help.

If you involved your stakeholders in this analysis (as you should!), they’ll no longer obsess over presenting and testing knowledge. Instead, they’ll commit to changing what people do.

I write about this a lot because it goes against “the way we’ve always done it,” which still dominates our field. Here’s a walkthrough showing how to do this in more detail for people who diagnose squealing widgets. This example shows how you might do this for soft skills. If you’re doing technical training, focus on what they need to do. Finally, here’s an interactive workflow of the entire process.


Scenario design course starts in May

For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts in May. The sessions include one in an Australia-friendly time zone.

Scenario mistakes to avoid #2: “Eat! Eat! You need to eat!”

“You need to eat more!” she says, heaping your plate until it rivals Mount Everest. “Eat! Eat!”

We all know the stereotype. Unfortunately, we can find ourselves turning into that stereotype when we feed information to people.

“You have to know this!” we say, filling the screen to bursting. “And this! And this!”

A huge platter of paellaIn scenario-design land, we can find ourselves doing this:

“First we’ll feed them everything they need to know, and then we’ll feed them some more as we show them how an expert does it, and finally we’ll let them waddle, overstuffed and dazed, through a scenario.”

Example, only slightly exaggerated

In the first post in this series, widget technicians had to diagnose squealing widgets. In the “Eat! Eat!” design approach, we’d “teach” them this way:

  • Tell the “widget story” — how widgets were invented and our company’s proud role in widgets’ ascendence to importance.
  • Explain how prompt customer service has helped us stand out in the widget field.
  • Explain that despite the stellar quality of our engineering, any widget could eventually develop a squeal.
  • Show a video of a squealing widget.
  • Show all the moving parts in a typical widget and what they do.
  • Explain that most squealing widgets have a wobbling synderhobble, and the squealing will stop when the synderhobble is screwed back into place.
  • Open a squealing widget, point to the wobbling synderhobble, and screw it back into place.
  • Say, “Now you do it.”
  • Watch as the “learners” obediently imitate what they saw five seconds ago by opening their widgets and screwing the synderhobble back into place.
  • Display a bulleted list of the other, less common causes of squealing widgets.
  • Move onto the next topic: Wobbling Widgets.

What’s wrong with this?

We make people eat when they’re full

We assume that everyone in the audience is equally and profoundly ignorant of the topic. But our audience consists of adults with decades of experience tinkering with gadgets — that’s why they signed up to be widget technicians. Some of them have already worked with widgets or with widget-like technology. Yet we stuff them with information they might already know, slowly suffocating what motivation they might have had.

We make people rely on short-term memory

Worse, our “scenario” came immediately after we showed them what to do. We used a version of “tell, show, do” that short-circuits independent thought.

Mike, a new widget technician, watched us screw the synderhobble into place, and 20 seconds later he had half-heartedly imitated what he saw. He was actually thinking about the vintage motorcycle he’s been taking apart in his garage.

Did Mike learn what we wanted him to learn? Was the behavior we wanted “Screw a synderhobble into place?” or was it “Correctly diagnose the cause of a squealing widget?”

Screwing the synderhobble into place is easy. Correctly diagnosing the cause of a squealing widget while an irritated customer waits impatiently is much harder. But instead of having people practice the hard stuff, we fed them the answer immediately and had them practice the easy task.

An alternative

The first post in this series describes an activity that would help Mike practice the harder stuff: He’s on a fictional phone call with a customer whose widget is squealing.

We haven’t shown Mike the history of widgets, and we haven’t told him that the most common cause of squealing is the synderhobble. We’ve just plunged him into the fictional phone call and provided optional help.

In elearning, that optional help could be links, such as:

  • A downloadable job aid: “How to Diagnose a Squealing Widget”
  • A short presentation, “The Moving Parts in a Widget,” that’s always available online

In face-to-face training, the optional help could be a printed version of the job aid and a link to the presentation on everyone’s smart phone. Since technicians often go into the field, this information needs to be portable.

When he’s in the scenario, Mike can look at the help or not, depending on his pre-existing knowledge and his willingness to try and possibly fail. The feedback shows the consequence of his choice, as described in the previous post.

Mike has to think on several levels: What do I know about this already? Is it accurate? What could be causing the squeal? What should I try first? And when he looks for information, it’s because he wants it. The information is a tempting buffet, not a mass forced-feeding.

Mike thinks hard and practices the hard stuff — diagnosing a squealing widget. He’s not daydreaming about the vintage motorcycle, and he’s probably more likely to transfer what he learned to his job. We’ve also made transfer easier by giving him a job aid and some information that’s always available on his phone.

I rant about this a lot, in posts like the following:

For the research supporting this approach, see Where’s the research support for scenarios? in my knowledgebase, the research cited in the post Throw them in the deep end, and books that summarize learning research, including Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Design for How People Learn.

Action mapping workflow available as an interactive graphic

Action mapping workflowWith help from readers’ feedback on the draft version, I’ve improved the action mapping workflow and summarized it in an interactive graphic.

You can download the graphic and a Word version of the workflow from that page.

Photo credit: Platter of paella by Joanbrebo via Compfight cc

Let me tell you everything you need to know! Or not.

Plane to ZekostanCongratulations! You’ve just been assigned to work with a design team in Zekostan. You’re leaving in a week.

Your Zeko colleagues know that you’re coming from a very different culture and might have trouble fitting in. Luckily, they’ve developed some materials that help people from your culture prepare for working in theirs.

You can choose one of the following “Prepare for Zekostan” packages. Which will you choose?

PACKAGE 1. A 56-slide online course in which a nice Zeko woman describes some cultural differences, bulleted tips appear on the screen, and you complete a quiz to confirm your understanding.

PACKAGE 2. A one-page PDF of tips, plus eight online branching scenarios in which you practice responding appropriately during typical interactions in the Zeko workplace.

If you’re like most people, you want package 2, the PDF and scenarios. You can put the PDF of tips on your smartphone to review as often as you like, and the scenarios will help you practice applying the tips in a safe but realistic-enough setting. You’ll be able to make mistakes in private and learn from them, instead of making them in front of your new colleagues.

Separate the info from the activity: It’s the Zeko way

Your preference for package 2 will also reassure your Zeko colleagues that you share their views about design. They’ve moved away from presenting information in an “engaging” way and then testing recall.

Instead, they put the information in a simple format that people can easily refer to whenever they want. They focus their design time on creating challenging, realistic activities that help people practice the decisions they need to make on the job. As people try the activities, they can refer to the information.

Example: Greet your colleague

How do the packages compare? Let’s look at how each package “teaches” a greeting.

PACKAGE 1: A nice Zeko lady appears as a talking head on the screen. “People new to the Zeko workplace are often surprised by our way of greeting our colleagues,” she says in a pleasant voice. “Greetings are of course very important in every culture. In Zekostan, we use greetings to show our connection to others by highlighting what we have in common. So when we greet each other at work, we identify a role that we have and that the other person also has, and we salute them from that role. For example, if you are an engineer and you are greeting another engineer, you would say, ‘The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.'”

The following appears as a bullet point on the screen: “Salute new colleagues using the job role that you have in common.”

Eventually, you get to a quiz. One of the questions is, “How should you greet a new colleague?” and one of the options is, “Salute them using the job role that you have in common.”

PACKAGE 2: The PDF has a section that looks like this:

GREETINGS
New colleagues
Goal: Highlight what you have in common
Technique:
     1. Identify a job role or responsibility that both of you have.
     2. Say, “The [job role] in me salutes the [same job role] in you.”
Example: “The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.”

The practice activities in package 2 often begin with you meeting new colleagues. In one of the scenarios, you’re a project manager, and your new boss introduces you to a team mate who’s also a project manager. You have to decide what to say. You choose, “The project manager in me salutes the project manager in you,” and your new colleague welcomes you warmly.

In another scenario, you’re a quality assurance manager. Your boss introduces you to a colleague who’s an editor. What should you say?

  1. The quality assurance manager in me salutes the editor in you.
  2. The quality advocate in me salutes the quality advocate in you.
  3. The detail freak in me salutes the detail freak in you.
  4. The team member in me salutes the team member in you.

You take the safe route and choose 4. Your new colleague gives you a decidedly cool welcome. You click “Why did this happen?” and see the following:

You’ve suggested that the only thing you have in common is that you’re assigned to the same team. This can be interpreted a veiled insult. When you don’t have the same title as your colleague, choose the most flattering responsibility or trait that you have in common. In this case, “quality advocate” would be best.

Look at the information or not: It’s up to you

In package 2, you’re not required to read the PDF before you start the activities. For example, you could ignore the PDF, jump right into the activities, offend people, click the optional feedback to find out what you did wrong, go back and make better decisions, and finally look at the PDF, treating it as a summary of what you learned through experience.

“The adult in me salutes the adult in you.”

Your new Zeko colleagues think it’s disrespectful to require grownups to all be exposed to the same information presentation, regardless of their prior knowledge. They think we treat adults like children when we tell them what to think and test them 5 minutes later to see if they can still think it.

Instead, your new colleagues base their design decisions on the following facts:

  • The people using the material are adults who have been learning from experience for decades.
  • They might already know some of what we’re supposed to “teach” them.
  • Some of their most memorable lessons started out as mistakes.
  • Adults’ self-esteem will not be squashed by a mistake in a training scenario.
  • When people struggle a bit, they can learn more deeply.
  • If people don’t want to struggle, they can always look at the supporting information or optional help.
  • Well-designed scenarios help people prove that they know something while they also practice doing it.
  • We’re in business, not education. We want people to do stuff, not just know stuff.

Obviously, the examples were simplified, and both packages provide just a band-aid approach to cross-cultural skills. A more effective preparation would dig below the surface pleasantries to help newcomers see from the Zeko perspective. In that case, I’d argue that scenarios would become even more important, because they’d help people notice subtle cues and shift perspectives in complex social interactions.

Explore some more

Scenario design course starts on Feb. 10
For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts on Feb. 10. There’s still room in the European session, which meets in the morning in the Americas.

Learning Technologies in London
If you like the idea of taking information presentation out of activities, you might like my London Learning Technologies session, “Throw them in at the deep end.” You’ll overhaul some conventional activities to make them more immersive and challenging. I’ll also be talking with practitioners at Booth H21 as part of the LT eXchange, and I’ll be part of the BarCamp with Aaron Silvers, Shannon Tipton, and David Kelly. All of this happens on Feb. 3. I hope to see you there!

Photo by Colby Stopa

5 quick ways to pull learners into a course

Typically bad stock photo“Welcome to the course Online Responsibility,” a too-perfect male voice intones while you stare at a stock photo of a man who’s grinning idiotically at a computer.

“Billions of bits of data travel through our firm every day,” the voice drones on while the stock photo changes to science-fictiony swirling lines and numbers. “Since the dawn of the digital age, electronic communication has…”

You lunge for the Next button, but you’re not allowed to click it until the droning man finishes, which he finally does while you’re in another browser tab, watching a video of a cat playing the piano.

I’ve seen a ton of elearning, and the painful majority of it starts this way. What are some alternatives?

1. Use a meaningful course name and skip the explanation.

If the title of the course is “Data Privacy,” then you can trust learners to understand that it concerns keeping data private. A meaningful title frees you from having to ponderously explain what the course is about.

2. Nix the narrator.

In corporate L&D, our learners are adults who can read for themselves, and they do it a heck of a lot faster than a narrator talks. Nothing squashes my interest in a subject more thoroughly than having the material spoon-fed to me by a slow speaker who apparently thinks I’m dense. In my sacrilegious opinion, the best use for a narrator is to talk about a graphic that isn’t already self-explanatory, not to deliver information that could be more concisely and quickly delivered through text. Here’s some research to support this. (And our main goal should be to design experiences, not information.)

3. Immediately show concise, appealing objectives.

Briefly tell the learner what they’ll be able to do as a result of the course, and focus on what they care about. Here’s a sample makeover of some boring objectives.

4. Motivate by showing, not telling.

Normally, your objectives should be motivating enough. If you think your learners need even more motivation, avoid the temptation to present statistics or to otherwise tell them why the topic is important. Show them through a story.

For example, you could (quickly!) show a young couple with a baby being turned down for a mortgage because one of our employees accidentally released their private data, which a bad guy used to get credit cards and destroy their credit history. For more on using stories to motivate, see Made to Stick.

5. Put basic information in activities, not a presentation, and let people prove that they already know it.

If you want to make sure everyone has the same basic knowledge before continuing, design activities that let people either prove they know the basics or discover the basics through feedback.

For example, in my scenario design course, I want everyone to have the same definition of “scenario.” However, I don’t show the definition at the start. Instead, I just say, “Let’s see if you can identify what I think a scenario is.” I then show several examples and non-examples and ask for each one, “Is this a scenario?” In the feedback I explain why the example fits or doesn’t fit my definition of “scenario.”

This starts the material with an activity, rather than a presentation, and I suspect it makes the definition more clear than a text blurb would have. It also lets people who already know the definition skip ahead by skipping the detailed feedback once they’ve confirmed that they made the right choice.

What do you think? What techniques have you seen or used that get learners immediately, actively involved in a course? Let us know in the comments.


London workshop on June 6

Please join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the fun, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” It’s action mapping on steroids. You’ll get in-depth practice applying activity-centered design to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

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Throw them in the deep end! (but keep a life preserver handy)

Child swimming in deep end“You’re setting them up to fail!” You’ve probably heard this if you’ve proposed starting with an activity instead of first providing instruction.

“Everyone knows” that people should be carefully shown how to do something and only then allowed to practice doing it. If you just throw them in the deep end, frustration and cognitive overload and squashed self-esteem will supposedly inhibit their learning.

However, several studies suggest that when we first challenge learners and then give them instruction, we can improve their ability to apply and extend their new knowledge. They could more effectively apply what they’ve learned to their jobs and to new situations.

In Scenario-Based Elearning, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer point out this study on “productive failure,” which led me to several others.

In these and similar studies, students with some knowledge of a discipline were given a problem without first being told how to solve it. They floundered, usually in groups, and then their solutions were examined and they were taught the correct process.

These “productive failure” groups were slightly weaker at applying the new process than were the “direct instruction” groups who were first taught what to do. But the former flounderers were clearly better at applying what they learned to other situations and at developing additional models that they hadn’t been taught.

It’s not clear how much support is best during the initial challenge. Collaboration with other learners seems to help, so in lonely, asynchronous elearning you’ll want to provide at least some scaffolding, such as hints or questions that guide learners to the correct steps to take. If I were queen, this scaffolding would be optional, it wouldn’t teach the content, and it would be provided in the activity, not as pre-activity instruction.

Like most research in instruction, these studies were done on elementary and university students, not adults in the working world. But in contrast to many studies, the researchers went beyond assessing the correct regurgitation of facts and looked at how well learners applied and extended their knowledge, which is our goal in business training.

This slideshow by one of the researchers, Manu Kapur, summarizes some of the findings that might apply to us. Some papers are available as full text:

When you think about the lessons you’ve learned, which are the most memorable — the ones in which someone first taught you everything you needed to know, or the ones in which you at first floundered and even failed? Have you been able to convince stakeholders to let people learn through a challenge rather than instruction? Let us know in the comments!

Online course in scenario design

I’m developing a 4.5-hour scenario design mini-course that anyone can sign up for. We’ll meet online for three 90-minute sessions starting this fall. If you’d like to be notified when the online course is available, please sign up here and you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

I’ve also overhauled my scenario design webinar. It’s a one-hour online workshop you can request for your team or ASTD chapter.

Australia: upcoming public workshops

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Photo by anuarsalleh

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Why you want to put the activity first

Let’s say we’re designing a course that will help widget sales people overcome buyers’ objections. The objection we’re focusing on right now is this one: “I’ve read that your widget creates a lot of heat.” We have a specific way we’d like our sales people to respond to that objection.

Some people in our audience are familiar with the concerns about heat, while new people might not know as much.

How do you think most training designers would approach this? I think they’d do it like this.

Presentation followed by activity

The designers would think, “First, we’ll tell them the common concerns about heat, to make sure everyone knows them. Then we’ll tell them what our own research shows about the heat and why it’s not a big deal. Then we’ll tell them how to respond to heat objections, and finally we’ll let them practice with a scenario.”

Why did I label this “boring and inefficient?”

  • The learners have to trudge through many screens before they finally get to use their brains.
  • Some people already know the stuff presented on the many screens.
  • The how-to info is presented immediately before the scenario, making the scenario a simple check of short-term memory.

Here’s a more efficient approach that has the added advantage of helping people learn by doing.

Series of activities followed by a recap

We immediately plunge learners into a realistic scenario — followed by another and another. Then we concisely recap what they’ve figured out through the scenarios.

The material feels like a stream of activities, not pages of information followed by one lonely memory check. The recap will be memorable and concise because it refers back to concrete examples, such as, “As you saw with Ravi’s objection, it’s best to …”

But what about the information?

We can include the information about heat issues as optional links in the scenario.

Screen from scenario with links to optional information

Now our material is more efficient and a heck of a lot more interesting. People who already know all about the heat issues (or, importantly, think they know) will forge ahead without reading the optional documents. Newer or more careful people will check the documents to make sure they know what’s going on. Both groups will figure out if they chose correctly when they see the results of their choices.

In addition, the optional documents are low-tech PDFs or pages on the intranet, the same documents that people use on the job. This makes the information much easier to update and puts the scenario in a more realistic context.

But they might just guess and miss important information!

The usual argument for the boring and inefficient approach is, “We have to make sure everyone is exposed to the information.” But who cares whether they’ve been exposed to it? What we care about is whether they know it and can apply it.

So we’ll design scenarios that make them prove they know it, and we’ll design enough challenging scenarios about the same important information to make sure no one is slipping through the cracks. And if we’re really worried about information being missed, we can include it in the feedback, as shown in this post.

But you didn’t show them how to overcome objections!

We haven’t led them by the nose through the Heat Objection Handling Process because we want them to figure it out through experience. Our feedback will help. For example, if someone chooses option C above, they’ll see the following result:

“I’m not surprised that your studies don’t show any problems,” Ravi says, sounding a little annoyed. “But Widget World does rigorous, independent testing, and they found heat issues. What can you tell me about the heat?”

From this, learners realize that shoving research at the customer backfires. It sounds like option A was the better option, and for their next step, they’ll want to calmly discuss the concerns. (This post goes into more detail on why we’re just showing the result rather than telling the learner what they did right or wrong.)

More design time, less development

This approach usually requires more in-depth discussions with the subject matter experts and more careful script writing. However, it often results in quicker and easier development. We’re building fewer screens and, happily, we feel less compelled to add bling in a desperate attempt to make a boring presentation more interesting.

Scenario design workshops and online seminar

The example used in this post is taken from my new and improved scenario design webinar. It’s a one-hour online workshop you can request for your team or ASTD chapter.

I’m also developing a 4.5-hour scenario design mini-course that anyone can sign up for. We’ll meet online for three 90-minute sessions starting this fall. If you’d like to be notified when the online course is available, please sign up here and you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

Have you had any success designing material that puts the activities first? Let us know in the comments!

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